Security talks with Russia to address a brewing crisis at eastern Ukraine's border have begun at NATO headquarters in Brussels amid low expectations for a breakthrough.
Representatives of NATO's 30 members and Russia are holding a NATO-Russia Council meeting as the second scheduled discussions this week aimed at calming tensions on the Ukraine border advance to the alliance forum.
The meeting comes during a week of high-stakes diplomacy and follows an initial round of U.S.-Russia talks in Geneva on January 10 that proved inconclusive.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko and Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Fomin are leading Moscow's delegation for the first meeting of the council in over two years. Grushko has described the meeting as 'a moment of truth' in Russia-NATO relations.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the top U.S. negotiator at the first round of talks, is also at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
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At the top of the agenda are the Kremlin's troop buildup near Ukraine and concerns that Russia could be preparing to launch a fresh incursion into Ukrainian territory.
Moscow has amassed nearly 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine and in Ukraine's Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula in what the United States has said could be a prelude to an invasion.
Western officials and analysts say Russia's buildup is an attempt to pressure the United States and European allies to make concessions.
The NATO-Russia Council meeting will consider Moscow's demand that NATO commit to ending its eastward expansion and roll back advances it has made in Central and Eastern Europe since the 1990s.
While expectations are low, NATO is hoping to draw Moscow into a sustained dialogue and stave off military escalation. Alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg said this week that a good outcome would be an agreement for further meetings.
U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith said on January 11 that not a single NATO ally was willing to negotiate anything related to NATO's open-door policy. The allies have long insisted that NATO membership is a matter for sovereign states to decide for themselves.
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Smith described the broad themes of the January 12 talks as 'risk reduction, transparency, arms control, and various ways in which we communicate with each other.'
She said that while NATO was 'committed to a meaningful reciprocal dialogue with Russia,' the alliance at the same time stood united 'to deter threats against NATO allies and further Russian aggression against our partners in Europe.'
Ahead of the meeting, Sherman rallied NATO allies after her conversations with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
'The United States is committed to working in lockstep with our allies and partners to urge de-escalation and respond to the security crisis caused by Russia,' she said.
After more than seven hours of negotiations in Geneva, the Russian and U.S. officials both offered to keep talking, though there was no breakthrough.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on January 11 that the U.S.-Russia talks were open and direct but did not lead to any progress on issues that Moscow deems urgent.
'We see no real reason to be optimistic so far,' Peskov said.
Russia will be represented at the NATO-Russia Council meeting by Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko, who has described the meeting as 'a moment of truth' in Russia-NATO relations.
Speaking after the January 10 talks and ahead of his return to Brussels, Grushko said Russia would demand a comprehensive response to its demands.
'We will push for a concrete, substantive, article-by-article reaction to the Russian draft agreement on guarantees,' he added.
With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and dpa
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036